Sunday, May 11, 2008

Dreams, or Reality?

We use different words to explain things. But there are themes that persist in philosophy and literature. As a writer, I am curious about one theme in particular. It is a theme that haunts my writing and my life. It is a theme that can be found in Shakespeare, Cervantes, Borges, and the Chinese Classics . . . It is the theme of life as a dream. Reading Lin Yutang's magnificent work, The Importance of Living, I am brought to a new level of understanding about the human condition. He explains the dream-reality paradox much better than I can. There is no inherent conflict between the two; from the human point of view, we see conflict where there is none.

I'm talking about our suffering which, at times, feels so real. How can it be a dream? And yet, I pay close attention to my mind, and see how it wavers from one desire to another. This capricious, whimsical quality of the mind reveals the very essence of our dream-being. We perceive one thing with absolute solidity. We cling to it as truth. With only the passage of time to prove to us, that this solidity is not real, just like all the other things that came before and appeared to us as real, which were not.

Lin encourages us to adopt the attitude of comical detachment. He writes, "It is important that man dreams, but perhaps equally important that man can laugh at his own dreams." We can only become philosophers, he says, once we see the inherent comedy in this dream life. There is nothing that is ours, nothing that will stay, including us. Realizing the vanity of existence is the paved road to an understanding of human suffering. What is needed in the end--our antidote, per say--is a good laugh at ourselves and our highest struggles.

I am a victim of the competitive American mindset. To such a degree that I'm not competing with anyone but myself. I compete with myself because I hunger for greatness. And yet all it takes is for me to read a couple poems by Emily Dickinson, or a short story by Tolstoy, to see how far I have to go. In the words of Lin, we are "clever monkeys." He uses a colorful vocabulary to describe the human condition. Because we have minds, we are conceited. Beyond that, he sees something marvelous and liberating in the character of the "scamp". The human being is a scamp, he says.

I think of the character in my novel, my alter ego Lethe Bashar, as a scamp. The scamp has no home. The scamp is rebellious and independent. He wanders to find his food. He philosophizes on his condition. It seems we are all scamps in our own ways. We are truly liberated for not having a home. Neither the realm of the animals, nor the realm of the gods. Once we see the futility of our serious missions in life, the vanity of our self-improvement projects, only then we can embrace this foolish and wise character of ours.


Lethe said...

I watched an interview with Charlie Rose and Bill Moyars last night. Bill Moyars used a phrase that I like, and that I think sums up some of these ideas. He said, "Each new experience creates a new reality." Perhaps this explains why life feels so real in the present; but in retrospect only like a dream.

G.S. Williams said...

Albert Camus wrote on the myth of Sisyphus, and it too hit on the futility of human existence, and that the only response was to embrace it as a comedy, despite the suffering.

Because the only thing you can control is your reaction to the dream.

The "dream" nature of reality is throughout philosophic and religious traditions. Buddhism and Hinduism consider reality an illusion, Maya, and our duty is to rise above it to higher consciousness.

In Christianity, the world is a lie and a temptation, the truth is the divine spirit within ourselves. Of course, it's not about comedy, but rather love and liberty.

It's also a central theme in No Man an Island.

Lethe said...

So glad you responded . . . I was just reading from my book, The Importance of Living, and Mr. Lin Yutang writes on the subject, "Thus I see both poetry and philosophy with the recognition of our mortality and a sense of the evanescence of time. This sense of life's evanescence is back of all Chinese poetry, as well as of a good part of Western poetry--the feeling that life is essentially but a dream, while we row, row our boat down the river in the sunset of a beautiful afternoon, that flowers cannot bloom forever, the moon waxes and wanes, and human life itself joins the eternal procession of the plant and animal worlds in being born, growing to maturity and dying to make room for others. Man began to be philosophical only when he saw the vanity of this earthly existence."

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